UN Report: Cellphones a Ticket Out of Poverty for the World's Poor

Cellphones aren't all fun and games for the world's poor. For many, they make the difference between bringing home the bacon—or not.

woman with cellphone

If you live in New York, Berlin, or Dubai, a cell phone is a convenience, or, more and more, a source of entertainment. But if you live in Bangladesh, Ghana, or Venezuela, it could be your ticket out of poverty.

A new report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development documents what those who’ve been following the emergence of the kinds of neighborhood phone ladies championed by Muhammed Yunnus have already intuited: “Mobiles have spawned a wealth of micro-enterprises, offering work to people with little education and few resources.”

There are about 25 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in the least developed countries (LDCs), according to the Information Economy Report 2010. That’s up from just 2 per 100 a few years ago. (Though it does still lag meaningfully behind the developed world, which has more than 100 subscriptions per 100 people.)

The spread of mobile phones means fishermen who have several ports to choose from can get pricing information while they’re still out at sea and choose the markets where their catch will bring in the most money. Farmers in Bhutan no longer see their products go to waste. Phones let them stay in touch with their customers, and they only ship as much as is needed. The emergence of mobile phones has also produced entirely new industries: the phone ladies, cyber-cafes, and handset refurbishing. And as we reported earlier this month, new SMS services can alert low-income job-seekers to new employment opportunities.

Penetration of selected ICTs in LDCs, 2000-2009 (per 100 inhabitants). Graphic: UNCTAD Information Economy Report 2010

But not all is rosy. The report warns that the opportunities are “unevenly distributed and not always sustainable.” While some countries enjoy cheap cell phones, in other countries, they’re still too expensive for the poorest of the poor. And while cell business is booming in the cities, more than half of the rural poor in the least developed countries have cell coverage, the report says. “Policies matter in ensuring that improved access to ICTs [information and communication technologies] leads to poverty reduction,” UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon writes in the preface to the report. “Governments have a key role to play in devising policies that respond effectively to the specific needs of the beneficiaries.”

[Image: Flickr user kiwanja]

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